He’s hotter than golf phenom Tiger Woods, with a success rate of 11 for 12 on grant applications during the past two years. He’s raised more than $1.6 million for his district in that period and is well on his way to achieving his goal of wiring each classroom with at least four computers and a cable television hookup. He’s got corporate partnerships, has tapped into federal and state technology programs, and is training students to become tomorrow’s high-tech workers.

Sound impossible? Then meet Raymond Jaksa, director of technology for the Mansfield (Texas) Independent School District, just south of Fort Worth. In the three years since he arrived at Mansfield, Jaksa and his Academic Technology and Networks team have spearheaded a coordinated approach to obtaining computers, improving access to technology, and training teachers and students.

“We have a well-defined technology plan, and in it, obtaining funding is one of the issues we address directly,” he says. “It all starts by coming up with a great planning tool.” The planning tool that Jaksa refers to is a carefully thought-out strategy that’s been revised and updated with input from teachers, staff, parents, and the area’s business community. It’s a document that integrates classroom, school, and district technology needs.

“Our campus technology plans are written in grant format, so that we can pull out our objectives and needs easily for an appropriate grant,” he says. “We can turn out a grant application in just a couple of days.”

Mansfield’s aggressiveness in seeking funding is partly driven by the rapid growth of the district, which is gaining about 1,500 students per year (a growth rate of 10 percent). The district is putting forth a bond issue approximately every two years, which indicates an opportunity as well as a necessity for careful technology planning in any capital spending plan. “In every new school and every retrofit, we are making sure we’ve got four computer drops in every classroom, as well as cable access,” Jaksa says.

It’s hard to say where Mansfield’s technology fund-seeking begins, because it is tied to every aspect of the district’s technology program. Perhaps it’s best epitomized by the district’s foundation, which doles out grants of up to $5,000 each year to individual teachers in the district. Seeking the broadest possible input from educators on what technology is needed, the district accepts any grant proposal for training, hardware, or software. The foundation draws about 100 grant applications each year and gives out about $150,000, Jaksa says.

Characteristic of how each project in the district feeds off everything else, Mansfield trains its teachers in writing grant applications for these foundation funds. This training, in turn, gives the district many more grant-savvy teachers who are skilled at seeking even more funds from outside the district. The program also provides a base of well-defined grant applications that may qualify for submission elsewhere, too.

To give teachers and school administrators further incentive, Jaksa redirects money that comes from the state for technology spending to the schools and lets them decide how to use it in accordance with the school’s “campus improvement” technology plan. Two years ago, the funds were $16 per student. That total has risen to $21 per student this year and will be $25 next year. “That’s a considerable amount of money,” Jaksa observes. By pooling that money, some schools have brought in a technology expert for a day, rather than sending only a limited number of educators to off-site training, for example.

The other thing that sets apart Jaksa’s method is his no-stone-unturned approach to what he calls “alternative funding.” These are resources that either provide the district with technology or tech training at no cost, or initiatives that save the district money that can then be redirected to meet technology needs. Here are some examples:

• Save money on current services. When Jaksa joined the district three years ago, Mansfield was paying $33 per phone line, per month. “It was a standard business rate,” he says. By cutting the number of phone system vendors from five to one, he’s been able to reduce that to $15.75 per phone, per month—and then that figure is nearly halved, thanks to the federal eRate program. “Guess where that extra money goes,” he says.

• Redirect poorly utilized funds. Is your district using Title I or Eisenhower grant money to train teachers to use yesterday’s technology, such as overhead projectors? “Maybe money can be shifted to software purchases,” Jaksa suggests.

• Seek corporate partnerships. Mansfield has instituted the STRUT (STudents Recycling Used Technology) program, which trains high schoolers in computer and network repair with the help of nearby employer Intel. “People donate used computers to the school district, and our students add memory and motherboards donated by Intel,” says Jaksa. “We use these computers in the classroom, and next year, the older systems will be assigned to families of kids in the Title I program for home use. And the students will have the opportunity to get certified as A-Plus technicians.”

Combined with used computers received through the federal Computers for Learning program, STRUT students have received almost 1,000 used computers for recycling in the past two years. The district also has received about $280,000 worth of web and internet training for teachers over the past three years, courtesy of National Semiconductor. And next year, the STRUT program will be expanded to train students in handling Cisco network routers. “The kids will get certified, and I’ll have people who can repair networks,” Jaksa says.

• Demand what the manufacturer promises. Jaksa has even pushed Microsoft to live up to a commitment in a way few companies or individuals have done. Microsoft promised that its Windows 95 operating system would have USB support, but it doesn’t. So Jaksa convinced the company to provide free upgrades to Windows 98, which does have the promised support, for 1,200 computers in the district, saving about $80,000 in the process. “Find a flaw in a computer package or program, and push it,” he advises.

• Read the fine print. The generosity of the state of Texas also has been tapped on several occasions, sometimes for obscure programs with a series of requirements. “There’s a library program [the Texas Library Connection] that if you have an automated checkout system and a booklist and a certain number of computers per student, then you get free internet access to Enclyclopedia Brittanica, an online biography database—ProQuest—and can check out books online through the entire Texas school system,” he says.

In another example, cable television companies usually are required as part of their contracts with localities to provide a certain number of cable hookups per school. Jaksa has used this program to obtain free coaxial cable drops for cable internet access and for high-speed data in each school. By having the data drops placed in school libraries, he’s enhanced library connectivity at no cost. “Most people don’t know about these programs,” Jaksa says.

• Consider marketing arrangements. Jaksa is negotiating with ZapMe! Corp. to have the company provide its services in his district. ZapMe! promises free computers and internet hook-ups in return for being able to show banner advertisements to students online. Jaksa plans to install ZapMe! computers in the district’s libraries, thus expanding library internet access, which then frees up existing library computers for library-related services. n

Links:

Mansfield ISD

http://www.mansfieldisd.org